How to Write Better Headlines by Ripping Off Every Book Ever

Creativity is hard. And trying to be original just makes everything worse.

So if you’re having trouble creating a fiery headline, just do what everyone else does:

Plunder and pillage from every available source.

Authors and editors spend days agonising over the titles of their books. And you can cash in on their misery with a quick bit of thievery.

Let’s take a look at a few classic gems and see why they work:

1. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

A headline in the form of a question does a lot of the work for you.

On a sub-conscious level, your readers are already considering the possible answers – which means they’re already engaging in the topic before they’ve read the first line of your content (or even clicked through to the page).

But Philip K. Dick’s influential novel (the one that inspired Blade Runner) is doing a whole lot more than that.

In just six words, he’s managed to:

  • Ask an intriguing question
  • Give us specific hints about the content of the book (androids and their psychological behaviour)
  • And introduce an intriguing new concept (artificial dreams).

And added together, these things create some serious interest.

So how can you bring this to your own headlines?

It’s not enough to just rearrange a normal headline into the form of a question. You need to spice things up.

You need to ask a question that prods their imagination. An open question with no easy answer – a question that demands that they read on if they want to uncover a secret.

Because if you present your readers with a question that has an easy ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer, that’s the end of it. Before they’ve clicked on your content or even thought about whether they want to read more, they’ve resolved the issue – they don’t need any more from you.

2. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

If I made a list of titles I never thought I’d see on a published book, this would be somewhere on that list.

Just like the story of the novel itself, the title is a mash-up. It’s the marriage of two completely opposite genres and settings, and this disparity creates something truly unique and attention-grabbing.

Even if you hate both tropes – period dramas and zombie attacks – it’s hard not to be intrigued by the wackiness of two ideas that should never have been pushed together.

If you’ve never heard of this book, I bet you’re already looking it up. You’re either outraged, incredulous, amused, or curious. And if you can evoke any or all of those reactions towards your own content, you can call that a success.

So how can you replicate it?

That’s simple. Take whatever topic you’re writing about, and mash it up with something else that doesn’t seem connected:

  • ‘How Accounting Software Saved My Marriage’
  • ‘5 Lessons in People Management from Game of Thrones
  • ‘Why Every CEO Needs Ice Cream at Their Board Meetings’.

But there’s one condition here:

You need to respect your audience. If you’re going to marry two estranged concepts to make an attractive headline, you need to make sure your content actually follows through on that promise.

It doesn’t have to become the entire thrust of your message – but at some point, you’re going to have to show your readers exactly how accounting software saved your marriage.

3. How to Lose Friends and Alienate People

We’ve all heard of ‘How to Win Friends and Influence People’.

So when we see a title that’s the mirror image of an established phrase, we’re intrigued and amused. We’re drawn in by the familiarity of the construction – but we’re hooked by the twist on a classic set of words.

You might think this is a bit of a cheap ploy: piggybacking on the fame of a book title that you’ve appropriated for your own gains.

And there’s some truth in that. But in reality, everything ‘original’ is a modification or combination of things that have gone before. It just so happens that this method is particularly transparent.

If you’re able to twist a well-known title into something funny or surprising, most people will appreciate the parody. You’re giving them a chance to participate in the collusion, and that participation can act as a powerful hook on its own.

So how do we make it work?

You already know how it works. Take a well-known title (or slogan or quotation) and flip it around: turn it upside down to make it fit your own agenda. That could mean:

  • A negation – ‘Why the Customer Isn’t Always Right’
  • A modification – ‘Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Taxes (But Were Afraid to Ask)’
  • Or an opposite – ‘The 7 Habits of Highly Useless People’.

The closer your new twisted title is to the original, the better. But the difference needs to be clear (as in the ‘How to Lose Friends’ example) – and it needs to make sense (would anyone really be afraid to ask questions about taxes?).

4. A Clockwork Orange

If you didn’t have a few curious questions when you first saw this book title, you’re probably a clockwork person yourself.

Anthony Burgess hasn’t just created a piece of intriguing imagery. He’s brought together two unrelated concepts in a new and unique way to create something totally original (just like the ‘electric sheep’ and ‘artificial dreams’ in the example above).

And before you’ve opened the first page of the novel, you already know things are about to get weird.

So how can you steal it?

In the content world, a three-word title that consists of a single image probably isn’t going to get you the attention you want. It’s too abstract and minimal for the audience and interests you’re trying to target.

But if you can weave something like this into one of your more everyday titles, you can create the kind of headline that grips a visitor’s eyes and doesn’t let go.

You could try:

  • ‘Do You Have a Creep Nose Working in Your Company?’
  • ‘How to Turn Your Marketing Campaign into a Wiry Wheel
  • ‘Looking for More Clients? You Need to Increase Your Vein Range

I don’t know what any of these mean. But don’t they sound interesting? Wouldn’t you want to click on a piece of content that promised an explanation of one of these new terms?

Even though I know these examples are nonsense pairings of words, I’m intrigued. The gears are in motion, and I think I already have an idea in my mind of what kind of person a ‘Creep Nose’ might be.

5. A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius

Dave Eggers’ memoir is – I hope – titled with a sense of humour.

It’s self-referential. It breaks the fourth wall. But besides its silliness, it’s also shamelessly selling itself.

It’s a story about a man looking after his younger brother after his parents die of cancer. So it’s probably heartbreaking. And it’s a book that was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize – so it might not be a stretch to call it a work of genius.

But regardless of what you think of the book, that’s a title that demands attention. And it’s a great example of the kind of shameless self-promotion that you can bring to your own content headlines.

So how can we use it?

It’s simple:

Don’t settle for the mundane. Add a little excitement to your headlines. And if you’re feeling cheeky, inject some exaggeration and hyperbole along with it. Instead of going straight to your default headline (like ’10 Tricks to Help You Get More Sales’) you could try:

  • ‘The Only Guide to Closing Deals You’ll Ever Need’
  • ‘The Most Exhaustive Compendium of Sales Tricks on the Internet’
  • ’10 Industry Secrets from Millionaire Salesmen They Begged Us Not to Reveal’

But you need to be careful. As these examples show, it’s easy to start creating headlines that border on the ludicrous. You need to maintain a healthy level of dignity and respect for your audience – you don’t want your professional website to start sounding like tabloid clickbait.

Does any of it really matter?

Book authors spend a lot of time on their headlines. And you should too.

Just like a book-lover perusing the shelves in Waterstones, the people you want to attract are browsing through social media feeds (or scrolling through the first page of Google).

They’re overwhelmed with options and offers of articles and blog posts to read. And that little extra bit of hard work spent spicing up your headlines can mean the difference between a headline that’s skipped and a headline that gets clicks.

Should We Feel Good about Selling Through Fear?

They’re coming to get you.

The germs, the environment, the terrorists, and the tax man. They’re all lying in wait, ready to lunge and pounce into your complacent, everyday life.

But Don’t Worry™:

There’s a handy solution for every exaggerated fear, and a fat chunk of profit for every shaky solution.

Selling through fear is nothing new. And it’s nothing inherently evil. But just like most things in life, there’s a huge scope for abuse.

Here’s how they do it:

The jab-jab-swing

There’s a common basic structure behind every attempt to sell through fear.

It goes a bit like this:

  1. There’s a risk.
  2. There are painful consequences.
  3. There’s a solution.

There’s nothing wrong with framing your message around this three-part structure. And once you start to recognise it, you’ll see it everywhere:

The problem comes when companies start to blow any (or all) of these three things way out of proportion. So let’s take a look at each of these three elements, and see where things go wrong:

Calculating the risks

How many times have you had food poisoning in your life?

I bet you could count them on the fingers of two hands.

But if the implications of this Food Standards Agency advert are true, we ought to be getting sick every time we do a bit of amateur cooking:

It’s a commendable advert that uses an inventive demonstration to send a powerful message. But they seem to have left out an important part of the risk-equation:

If it’s that easy to spread germs on the walls, the doors, and your face, shouldn’t we all be getting sick every day?

Now, I’m no scientist. But I don’t think that coming into contact with a few cells of salmonella guarantees illness every time. If that were the case, we’d probably be extinct by now.

So while they might be right about how quickly and easily dangerous germs can spread, it doesn’t feel like they’re being completely honest about how dangerous those spread germs really are.

Of course, the FSA isn’t really trying to ‘sell’ anything directly. They’re trying to improve awareness and reduce disease. Or if you want to get cynical, they’re trying to reduce the strain on the NHS’ budget while keeping as many economic drones in work for as many days of the year as possible.

But when you see something like this next advert, you really have to wonder if they’re giving us a fair assessment of the risks:

Again: I’m not a scientist.

But did this advert really suggest that using an ordinary sponge is the equivalent of wiping down your kitchen counter with a raw chicken leg?

Please. This is how you encourage entire countries to develop OCD.

Concerns are real. Risks exist. Facts are great, and statistics are even better. But if you want to drive terror into the hearts of the masses to boost your profits, at least make sure that the risks are realistic.

Presenting the consequences

We all know what happens if you mess around with raw chicken. It’s a grim condition, and it feels awful for a few days. But unless you’ve got some other worrying medical condition, the vast majority of people pull through and recover without anything serious happening to them.

Some adverts, however, go all out, showing you only the most extreme consequences that could possibly happen.

This is a warning – the next advert is graphic and shocking:

That’s some nasty imagery. And this advert was so brutal that it was restricted from being shown on TV before 9pm.

Now, I need to be careful here:

I’m not saying that wild driving isn’t dangerous. I trust other drivers about as much as I trust my guts during a bad case of food poisoning.

I look both ways when I cross a one-way street – and I watch the wheels of the waiting cars, even when I’m heading towards a little green man.

Reckless driving is a real problem. And we all know there’s a good chance you’ll have a serious accident if you drive like you’re in a high-speed pursuit.

But how often will a class of schoolkids be sat in a tight cluster in the perfect shape of the car that’s barrel-rolling towards them?

I wholeheartedly commend the intention behind this advert. And even the most die-hard horror movie fan is likely to be shocked into thinking about road safety when they watch it.

But you have to admit that these particular consequences are massively overblown. If this were an advert from a car company showing off its advanced safety features, people would be even more outraged than they already were.

Instead, it’s an advert promoting road safety: so we’re tempted to give it a free pass.

They could’ve shown this reckless driver tearing through a school zone while a couple of kids crossed the road. Or speeding round a bend and smashing head-on into a packed school bus. These are equally fatal scenarios, but they’re also believable. These consequences aren’t guaranteed – but at least they’re reasonably likely.

Of course, the makers of this ad wanted to really shake you up. It works, but you have to wonder if they went a bit too far this time.

In comparison, here’s another road safety advert from New Zealand. It’s just as chilling, but this one shows us the dangers of speeding with consequences that are far more realistic:

There’s no ‘2 Fast 2 Furious’ barrel roll. No dense assembly of cute kids at a picnic in a park. Just a single car pulling out from a junction with an innocent child sitting in the back.

And if you ask me, it’s more effective.

The conversation surrounding the first road safety advert was derailed by an analysis of its grotesque violence and excessive shock value. People were talking about whether the advert should be shown, not whether we should all slow down when we drive.

The first advert drew so much attention to itself with its graphic imagery that viewers forgot about the real message the advert was trying to send.

And of course: it was so grisly that it ended up being restricted on TV – limiting the number of people it could’ve reached with that message.

The second advert stays closer to its true message. It doesn’t distract you with the vicious slaughter of twenty younglings. Instead, it focuses on the real issues – the lack of control and reaction time when you drive too fast, and the importance of being aware of your speed before it becomes too late.

The consequences of a troubling situation are important in any sales pitch. But if you’re going to present consequences, they need to be credible.

Wheeling out the solution

Now we’re on to the real purpose of any advert: the bit that makes the bad go away.

If you’ve been wiping down your kitchen counter with a raw chicken leg, you’re probably right to be concerned about germs. So what’s a terrified parent supposed to do?

That’s easy: give in to your deepest fears and spend more money on a special product:

‘It has a special germ-killing formula other liquid soaps don’t. And it’s hardly worth getting soap on your hands if you’re not killing germs.’

That sounds reasonable. But in reality, it’s rubbish.

It’s absolutely worth getting soap on your hands if you’re not killing germs. Hundreds of scientists and medics have come together to tell us that anti-bacterial soaps are useless, and that plain soap and water is the best way to protect against illness.

But when you’ve got a borderline-neurotic fear that germs will permanently maim your precious offspring, any soap that boasts special protective properties is an anaesthetic to your anxiety.

Your soap might kill 99.9% of germs, and I’m happy to believe that’s true. But that’s just irrelevant overkill – don’t pretend that our kids are any safer with your soap than they are with an everyday soap that’s cheaper.

Sadly, things aren’t much better in any other industry, either:

Coca-Cola’s Vitamin Water claimed that its sugary beverage could promote healthy joints and reduce the risk of eye disease – but there were no doctors giving it out in hospitals.

L’Oréal claimed that their expensive range of skincare products could provide anti-ageing benefits by targeting their customers’ genetics – whatever that means.

And Mars Petcare claimed that their particular brand of dog food would help your favourite pet to live 30% longer – a scientific revolution that should have earned a Nobel Prize.

These solutions sound fantastic (in both senses of the word). But can these advertisers honestly say that the benefits of their solutions were sincere?

So when is it OK to sell through fear?

‘Fear’ is a strong word. And you can apply to it to almost any situation where there’s a problem to be solved.

Are you afraid of disease? Buy our anti-bacterial soap and drink our Vitamin Water.

Are you afraid of becoming ugly and wrinkly? Buy our gene-boosting sci-fi skincare products.

Are you afraid of losing a loved one? Buy our youth-potion dog food and stop driving like a maniac.

It’s normal to frame the problem your product solves as a worrying situation. It’s an established formula that’s worked since the dawn of sales. But you need to keep a tight rein on the way you present that problem.

If you’re going to sell through fear, you need to have:

  • Realistic risks
  • Credible consequences
  • And a sincere solution.

Drunk drivers will probably crash at some point. That’s a realistic risk.

If they’re caught, the legal aftermath will be severe. That’s a credible consequence.

And if you never drink and drive, you’ll never cause a drink-driving accident. That’s a sincere solution.

But if you think you can make more money by pretending that germs will always get you, sickness will always kill you, and every other soap is utterly worthless?

You’re probably right: you’ll make plenty of money.

But that doesn’t mean you should feel good about it.

How to Write a Job Advert for Real Human Beings

One day soon, the robots will have it all.

But until that day comes, you’ll be stuck hiring humans.

And what are humans always thinking about?


Writing a job advert is exactly the same as writing any piece of marketing or advertising.

You’re not trying to buy an employee.

You’re trying to sell a job.

So use the same approach you’d use to sell anything else.


Speak to the person you want to hire

One of the hardest things about writing an advert is getting the message right for a particular type of person.

And a job advert deserves the same rigour.

But in reality, it’s so much easier.

Unlike a normal advert, you’re not really writing it for the general public or a couple of demographics. You’re writing it for an incredibly narrow band of people.

You’ve already done the hard work deciding exactly who you’re looking for (I hope).

You’ve defined the qualifications, the experience, the skillset, the attitude, and the personality of the ideal person you have in mind.

If you were a copywriter, this level of laser-targeted focus would be a dream situation.

So don’t waste this opportunity: speak directly to the person you want to hire.

Think about who they are and what they want – and then promise what they’re looking for and demonstrate that you’ve got the goods.

Just remember:

This is not about you or your company.

You’re a seller, not a buyer. So start acting like it.

I never want to see this in a job advert ever again:

That’s not you writing to the job-hunter.

That’s you writing a brief to your hiring manager to help them write a job advert later.

Now, if you’re looking for a job-hunter who isn’t a corporate slug, you could try something a bit more like this:

Isn’t that better in just about every way?


Craft a headline (not a job title)

A job advert is not a job description.

A job advert is an advert.

And just like any written advert, you’re throwing away its power if you don’t put a lot of effort into the headline.

Unless you’re a household-name brand, no one is looking for you or your company. They’re not just looking for a job title and a business name.

They’re looking for any job that fits what they want. And that means you’re fighting against every other job advert they look at.

So how do you stand out?

With a sexy headline.

That could mean an enticing promise of a specific benefit for the job seeker:

Or it could mean asking a question that demands a positive response:

And if you want to get dangerously close to appearing like a warm human being, you could even try injecting a little fun and personality:

If you want your job advert to get noticed by bright people with plenty to offer, you need to write a headline that’s irresistible.

And sadly, just about every job advert headline out there is completely and utterly resistible. It took me hours to find a headline that contained any fun or personality at all.


Put the best bits first

Any serious job seeker is probably scouring through dozens of job adverts a day.

And that means they’re probably ready to move on to the next one before they get to the end of yours.

So what’s the solution?

Hook ‘em from the start.

1.   Don’t start your job advert with a company bio

If someone clicked on your advert, it’s because they want to know more about the job.

They want to know why working for you would be awesome – not why your customers love you so much.

Instead, give your audience exactly what they’re looking for in the first few sentences:

2.   Squeeze in some benefits as early as possible

After trawling through hundreds of awful job adverts just to find a few glimmers of hope to use as examples, it’s a rare treat to find a pure beauty like this one:

It’s magnificent.

It’s a dense composition of benefits for the job-hunter, and almost nothing else. And the image you see is the entire job advert.

There’s no waffle about the company and its achievements. No stuffy nonsense about ‘motivated self-starters with the passion and drive to hit targets and achieve excellence’.

In just 150 words, they’ve offered a salary, a home, free language lessons, a short working week, ongoing training, and paid overtime.

And the real kicker?

A refund on your plane ticket.

If you ever wanted to see a shining example of how to sell a job to a human, this is it.

3.   Ask questions to make the right person say ‘yes’

Do you prefer job ads that get to the point?

Would you read something that felt like it spoke to you?

When you ask the kind of questions that demand a positive answer, you’re not just weeding out the wrong people:

You’re bringing your reader into a conversation.

They feel involved, like they’ve become a part of the flow of the advert. (Even though it’s really just a one-way message.)

They’re more likely to read on. And on a subconscious level, they’ve already conditioned themselves into an agreeable state of mind.

So when you later start boasting about how great your company is, they’ll be more likely to be convinced.

4.   Act like you have a personality

If you’ve ever had to scour the job sites, you’ll have quickly realised just how dry, stale, and homogenous every job advert is.

So when something like this pops up, it can get a lot of attention:

It’s a little corny. But it’s still charming.

From the very first word, you can feel the enthusiasm and personality of the people behind this advert.

They don’t sound stuffy and robotic. And they don’t sound like they work for another corporate mincer, slowly flattening the life out of every employee that passes through.

For most people, this isn’t really a dream job. But the advert alone makes them sound like a company that might be full of fun people to work with.

I’m sure some of you will scoff at a job advert like this. You’ll say it’s unprofessional and flippant – and you might even say that its self-deprecating humour is devaluing the job it’s supposed to be selling.

But there’s always a healthy middle ground.

If you can stick just 10% of this advert’s attitude into one of your own company’s frigid old job ads, you might be pleasantly surprised at the results.


Don’t be cheeky with the details

It’s perfectly fine to puff up some of the benefits with a little gusto and pep.

(In fact, it’s heavily encouraged.)

But don’t try to hide or obscure the important facts by burying them deep in a sandwich of waffle and jargon.

People will notice – even if it takes them a little longer to dig it out.

If they don’t notice in the job ad, they’re going to have a big shock when it comes to the interview.

And get this:

Real human beings hate being tricked.

So if your job comes with some unappealing bits, be honest about them – but try to pair them up with a positive spin.

That might mean long hours (but the overtime pay is great!)

It might mean late-night shifts (but you’ll never have to set your alarm clock!)

They might need to travel around a lot (but they’ll get to see every city in the country!)

You get the idea.

You’re not hiding anything or deceiving anyone. You’re just softening the blow with relentless positivity.


Use the same language you use in the office

I know so many warm, friendly, bubbly people who slip into a horrible mindset when they switch between saying something and writing it down.

Whether it’s conscious or not, they always end up sounding like a business-bot.

And if you think your workplace is fun because of all the encouraging personalities and playful banter – that’s exactly what any human job seeker will think, too.

So don’t hide it. Flaunt it.

Show people what they’re really applying for. Give them a taste of what it would be like to hang out and work hard with the real human beings they’ll end up next to.

Because if the tone of voice in this job advert is a true depiction of a typical conversation in your workplace, then I admire your resilience:

Be honest: you didn’t read it all.

If that was carefully written to attract a particular personality, I never want to be left alone in a room with that personality.

But this ad, on the other hand, just might have been written by a genuine human being:

I don’t know about you. But I’d much rather work in a place where people say things like ‘chip in to help the team’ and ‘keep everything running like clockwork’.


Ready to join the human race?

Good. You’ve come to the right place.

There are loads of different ways to make your job ad stand out and get noticed by organic creatures. (And if you want an easy shortcut, you can always talk to someone like me.)

But however you go about it, just remember this:

An advert isn’t about the seller (that’s you, the employer).

An advert is always about the buyer (the job-hunter).

And if you don’t make that painfully obvious from the beginning?

You’ll end up recruiting a robot.

Simple Sells – But Your Customers Aren’t Idiots

There’s a lot to be said for simplicity in advertising.

Short words, short sentences. Basic verbs and easy concepts.

But some of the most powerful and memorable messages in advertising haven’t always been so direct and clear.

Sometimes, there’s deliberate obscurity. There’s complex language.

There’s a mystery to unravel – and a little bit of brainpower to use along the way.

And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with either approach .Continue reading

When a Cute Tone of Voice Makes You Physically Sick

You probably think I’m going to start droning on about Innocent and their smoochy-smoochy smoothies.

‘Ooh!’ I’ll probably (never) say. ‘They’re speaking like we speak … but on a product label! Neat.’

Well, don’t worry – I won’t be talking about Innocent at all.

I mean, I just did, so I suppose I already am. But that’s it now, I promise.

You’re also probably thinking: ‘This isn’t a very professional way to start a piece of writing.’

But these days, it really is.

Continue reading

Will AI Ever Beat the Creatives?

A few years ago, the idea of an AI writer producing anything worth reading was laughable.

Today, we’ve got an AI to help humans with their writer’s block and a Twitter bot composing horror stories. Most fitting of all, there’s even an artificial writer adding a new chapter to Asimov’s classic ‘I, Robot’.

It all sounds a bit Philip K. Dick.

But creativity isn’t that complex – and it won’t be long before the robots catch up to the professionals.

Can a robot writer beat a human one?

In some specific cases, they already have.

A couple of years ago, Persado started helping businesses to write better subject lines for their marketing emails.

By analysing the language used across huge volumes of past marketing campaigns, Persado’s AI was able to create the most persuasive email subject lines for a given audience and offer. To the horror of every copywriter out there, it gave businesses a 75% improvement in response rates when compared to content written by humans.

That’s no small boost.

In the mainstream media, we’ve already seen robot writers churning out short technical articles in sports and financial reporting – and in some cases, it’s not easy to tell them apart from the ones written by humans.

But can a computer be truly creative?

The easiest answer – and probably the most popular and inaccurate one – is no.

When we think of creativity, we often idealise it as something elusive: something mystical and profound that’s drawn from an intangible inner source. When we’re not opening our veins over a typewriter, we’re channelling our spirit animal through a paintbrush.

But if we can put our romantic ideals to the side, we can start to ask a more important question:

Instead of asking ‘Can a computer be creative?’, perhaps we should be asking:

Is a computer’s process that much different from our own?

As far as we know, no one ever produced anything creative without some prior input.

Whether we’re writing novels or designing logos, we start by drawing on our past experiences of creative content: what’s worked before and what hasn’t.

We can spend years absorbing other examples of good work – sometimes mimicking them, sometimes developing them further.

With a deep enough bank of past examples, we can start to draw connections between ideas that haven’t previously been brought together. When this happens, we start to call the result ‘original’ or ‘creative’.

When Suzanne Collins came up with the idea for The Hunger Games, she was flipping through TV channels late at night.

On one channel, she saw a reality game show where young people were competing for a million-dollar prize.

On the next channel, she saw footage from the war in Iraq – and the two very different scenarios fused together in her mind to create the spark for her best-selling series of novels.

But here’s the thing:

That’s not really any different to what Persado did.

It looked at countless historic subject lines and their effectiveness, drawing out different elements from each example and fusing them together to create new iterations for testing.

Collins didn’t spend hours in a sensory deprivation tank, exploring the deep recesses of her soul to find inspiration. She looked at concepts that already existed, and married different parts from each situation to create something new and fresh.

So why couldn’t a computer do exactly the same thing?

Vocabulary is a database

Let’s take a simple example.

Between Persado and Wordsmith, we know there are AIs that can choose and manipulate words and their orders with some success.

It’s safe to assume that an AI could be taught to play a game of word association – you give them ‘pizza’ and they’ll give you ‘dough’, ‘crust’, and ‘cheese’ in return.

It could also have access to rhyming words, homophones and popular phrases, through online rhyming dictionaries and idiom lists.

Given all that, it’s plausible that an AI could generate something like this:

Yes, it’s an eye-roller.

It’s a silly pun that’s a little bit clever, and it won’t be nominated for any awards.

But while this sort of simple wordplay might have taken a human copywriter half an hour to come up with, it’s the sort of thing a computer could churn out in less than a second.

Of course, today’s AIs wouldn’t really know they had done anything clever. They might have generated dozens of options from the same database of associated words – some rubbish, some not so awful:

  • Buy our pizza – we’ll bake your day
  • Buy our pizza – it’s locally sauced
  • Buy our pizza – you can crust us
  • Buy our pizza – our slices are competitive.

From a methodical perspective, these results might look equally valuable to an early AI – even though it should be clear that the second and fourth ones make a lot more sense than the first and third.

In each of these cases, as well as in the actual advert above, the creator has taken a popular phrase and swapped in a pizza-related word that sounds similar to the word that’s been replaced.

But even if an AI were to create thousands of different ‘creative’ ideas in a few short seconds, it would still take a human pair of eyes to pick out an idea that’s relevant and deep enough to be considered worthwhile.

For now.

If Persado is able to test and learn from its suggestions to improve its email subject lines, there’s no reason to think a word-juggling advertising AI couldn’t eventually do the same with high-level creative ads – and it might one day start suggesting winning concepts at a rate that’s simply beyond a human copywriter.

The image problem

Today, computers and AIs aren’t too good at recognising images.

That’s why SEO experts tell us that image names and alt tags are so important for Google’s spiderbots.

It’s also why Japanese scientists were recently able to fool AI-based image recognition software into thinking a turtle was a rifle, just by changing a single pixel.

So while we might be happy with the idea that an AI could one day marry different words and phrases in a way that’s relevant to the product on offer (like the pizza example above), we can see where it might have trouble coming up with the right image to accompany the text.

And, unfortunately for the advertising AI, it’s in the visual media – posters and video – where some of the most appealing creative work lies.

We’ll start with a simple example again.

Currently, neural networks recognise images by learning from the patterns in a huge number of different visuals. If you feed a computer enough pictures of french fries – and tell the computer that it’s looking at french fries – it should eventually become better at recognising french fries on its own.

In theory, you could then use this recognition software to help you find images that aren’t proper matches, but still bear some similarity. They might even start to draw your attention to similarities that you hadn’t noticed by yourself – perhaps leading to ideas like this:

As far as I’m aware, it was a human who originally noticed the similarity between the yellow crosswalks in the US and a packet of fries. But you can imagine how an AI trained in image recognition might make the same association, and put it forward as one of its suggestions.

A human graphic designer looking for inspiration might have clicked through page after page of ‘yellow sticks’ on Google images while working on a McDonald’s brief. An AI, however, could return this similarity and countless others in seconds.

Dealing with complexity

Let’s look at an advert with a little more depth (one that probably wasn’t really made by Hoover):

If we were to pretend that this advert was created by an AI, we could start to retrace the steps it might have taken to generate the concept.

From its vocabulary database, it might associate the term ‘vacuum cleaner’ with the words ‘suction’ and ‘air pressure’.

‘Air pressure’ and ‘suction’ are related to the concept of decompression, and decompression is a word that’s commonly associated with planes and spaceships.

So we could imagine its suggestion to the advertising department – ‘Compare {Suction:Hoover} with {Suction:Plane[Decompression]}’.

For a human advertiser suffering from creative block, that’s a great suggestion for a brainstorming session.

But wait, there’s more:

Before it can create the finished advert above, the AI needs to ‘know’ that decompression in planes can happen with a broken window.

It needs to ‘know’ that consumers sometimes look through and have access to these windows.

And it needs to ‘know’ that consumers are sometimes presented with written instructions on other glass windows that tell them to break the window in certain circumstances.

A human can understand the Hoover advert in seconds – they’ve seen enough action movies and hoovered enough floors to make the connection.

But for an AI to make the leap from ‘Compare {Suction}’ to the first-person image and written instructions above, it would need to understand all of this:

That’s not to say it’ll never happen.

But we’re still a long way off from an AI that can produce and recognise a finished piece of creative work by itself.

So what does it all mean?

For any kind of creative worker – graphic designer, creative copywriter, artist or fiction writer – there’s going to come a time when an artificial intelligence can do the grunt work faster than you. So much faster, in fact, that you won’t want to do it yourself any more.

Don’t be scared. It’ll be just like using a rhyming dictionary instead of racking your brains for a word yourself. Or like typing a detailed request into Google images to get the specific stock photo you need.

At first, it’ll be a blessing.

You’ll use your AI tools to drum up hundreds of rubbish ideas in a few seconds, spend a few minutes picking out the more promising ones, and get to work like you always did. Your output as a creative will improve, and you’ll be glad you didn’t have to spend hours on the tedious brainstorming parts.

It’s only later that you’ll start to get really worried.

You’ll see some decent ideas being suggested, and then some solid ones arriving in a more developed state – already far closer to the finished concept that you’re trying to produce.

Eventually, your job will be tweaking and choosing from a list of great ideas, full of visual and conceptual insights that surprise and intrigue you. You’ll be approving ideas that you’ll wish you’d come up with yourself, and you’ll start to feel envious and redundant.

You might start to feel less like a creative with a robot helper, and more like a helper to a robot creative.

The machines are adapting – but so will you

Did you feel redundant the first time Word checked your spelling?

Did you feel your artistic command was being usurped when you chose your first photo filter on Instagram?

Did you immediately burn your bridges with every web developer in the country when you found a WordPress plugin that did exactly what you needed?

Of course not.

You put these practical tools to good use, you were happy about how much time and effort they saved you – and then you spent that extra time flexing your higher-level skills.

The kind of advanced AI that can completely replace writers, designers and developers isn’t here. It won’t be here next year, and it probably won’t arrive in the next decade.

When it does arrive, it won’t be a surprise. You’ll have had years to figure out new ways of competing against it, working with it, or avoiding it altogether.

Technology won’t wait for you. But you’ve still got plenty of time to adapt.